Skip to main content

Japanese Style Tribes


Amidst Vancouver’s rain-ready fashion scene of Gore-Tex and fleece, an exotic style tribe of hip, young Japanese students colours the streets. They are difficult to miss. You see them walking in Yaletown, shopping on Robson Street and rollerblading in Stanley Park.

Perhaps the best place to witness the style tribe phenomenon is the Vancouver Public Library. There, Japanese students gather to read their favourite comic books and fashion magazines. One girl sits at a carrel sporting a Jackie Brown Afro. Another enters wearing huge black platform boots, a hot pink mini, and a camel duffel-coat tailored to perfection. A young Japanese man sits slumped nearby wearing dirty vintage Levi’s and a slightly orange, shaggy hairdo reminiscent of John Travolta circa 1977.

These boots were made for walking.

Style tribe youth did not always dress like this. They probably arrived in Vancouver with clean-cut hair and dressed in cute suits. Over the past five years there has been a drastic change in the appearance of Japanese students; they often adopt fashion extremes.

Students Relish in the Freedom of College by Altering their Style

Colleen Fulton, an employee of Canadian International College (CIC), works closely with Japanese students from the time they arrive until they graduate. Recently she has observed a change in Japanese fashion trends. “In the last five years there has been a huge difference in the Japanese students’ appearance,” she says. “They are increasingly more outrageous in style. Yet, during the first week at the college they often wear suits; sometimes their hair is styled wildly. After graduating from the college, they always dye their hair back to its natural shade and revert to a 1950’s schoolgirl or schoolboy look.”

Newly arrived students progress from sensible shoes, white blouses and suits in natural wool fibers to a myriad of outrageous colours and fashions. One CIC student, Kazue, arrived in Vancouver in the usual conventional dress. Over a period of eight months her appearance radically altered. Her hair progressed from natural brown to full-blown Raggedy Anne orange. “I said one day, ‘I am going to dye my hair!’ This is big for me. I wanted to have it orange,” says Kazue.

Visiting from Japan Yohko Edono becomes part of the Vancouver scene.

Tokyo Hotbed of Fashion

Outrageous styles are not limited to Vancouver. In Tokyo, districts are devoted to unique fashion tribes. Minako, a visiting student, tries to explain by drawing a large circle on her writing pad. She places the names of suburbs on the circle, and Tokyo in the centre. Minako explains that each suburb has its own style, but Tokyo is the fashion Mecca. Thousands gravitate to Tokyo malls each day to cultivate their hip style and to get noticed.

Girls gathering in front of Meiji Shrine, Tokyo.

In the Shibuya suburb a style tribe known as the Gunguro Girls has emerged. Gunguro Girls are Japan’s version of the Valley Girl: a mix of “trailer trash” and Hawaiian kitsch with a hint of American R&B. Translated, gunguro means black face. The girls tan their skin to a deep mahogany, bleach their hair blonde and hobble on 12- inch platform shoes. Their make-up is heavily caked in shades of frosted white and sky blue that match their micro mini skirts. The gunguro style was prompted by Japanese pop sensation Namie Amuro.

Japanese students in Vancouver tend to stay away from gunguro. Minako explains, “Gunguro is for young girls in high school. And in Tokyo, we don’t like them. They are suburban. My friend is gunguro. They are like this just because they want to be. They are being cheeky.” A few have been spotted at the University of British Columbia teetering on platform shoes; however, the style remains a Tokyo phenomenon.



The students from Japan are often told to dress more conservatively while staying in Vancouver. When Kazumi first arrived in Canada, the international college she attended cautioned her about dressing provocatively. Because Kazumi was far from Japan and her family’s watchful eye, she ignored the warnings and became more creative with her fashion. During her first years in Vancouver, she continued to wear platforms and short skirts until she ran into a cultural difference between North America and Japan. Kazumi says, “One night I was at a nightclub on Richards with my friends. It was my first time to see prostitutes near Davie Street.” Kazumi was shocked to find her fashion style similar to Vancouver’s underworld. She never imagined Tokyo’s hip style could be seen as risqué in Canada.

Other fashion tribes are popping up in Tokyo and Vancouver. Cutie-kei and “Office Lady” styles are more conservative. Cutie-kei is less provacative and more avant-garde. It is inspired by Prada and high fashion. “Office Lady” is a sophisticated, mature look that prizes designer labels. Japanese men have comparable tribal styles. They opt for casual fashion that concentrates on brand names like Gucci, Prada and vintage anything. Although they wear designer clothing, their look is relaxed, emulating North American skateboarders and snowboarders. Their hairstyles often resemble Pokemon characters.

Masahiko, a student at a local international college, loves to snowboard and describes his style as popular and simple. He points to his luscious Prada sports bag to illustrate his cool fashion sense. Masahiko is on the cutting edge. “Japanese like name brands,” he adds while casually scratching his orange cotton-ball hair. He may look hip now, but once he returns to Japan his street wear will be replaced by tailored suits. “When I go to my job, I have to wear a formal suit. No orange hair,” he says with a smile.

For Japanese students in Vancouver, it is a time of self-indulgence before they enter Japan’s job market. Their fashion sensibilities are a reaction to their future as corporate leaders. To a casual onlooker, their style might suggest rebellion and complete defiance, but it is more innocent. Inevitably, each student will grow up and leave their wild ways in Vancouver behind them.

2001 Pacific Rim Cover. "Veiled Propositions" Cover Story. Image of woman wearing wedding veil.

You finished: Japanese Style Tribes

Issue 2001

Balance and Harmony

Click Here for more stories